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The Strange World of Sports Mascots Posted by on Sep 27, 2018 in Culture, News, sports

By now, no matter where you are from, you have certainly seen a sports mascot. These animals, or not-quite-real creatures who appear on the sidelines of many sporting events to excite the crowd and make us laugh, have been around for over a century. The Olympics have had mascots for 50 years. But, where did they come from? And why does every school, university, and professional team feel that they must have one?

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

The English word, mascot, comes to us from the French word mascotte, or lucky charm. It is derived from another word, masco, a slang term for a witch. Mascottes were generally inanimate objects, such as flowers or locks of hair. It was popularized in an 1860 opera “La Mascotte” which tells the story of a farm girl who brings luck to any farmer who has her. By 1861, the word had entered the English language, and mascots were now living creatures.

The original sports mascots were actually children. Their antics and tricks delighted and charmed crowds. Soon, animals were more commonly used to entertain the crowds and intimidate the team’s opponents. Bears, alligators, oxen, and birds of prey were popular. Then came Handsome Dan.

Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, was convinced that their Ivy League football team needed a mascot. Princeton had a tiger cub. Harvard had a man dressed as Puritan John Harvard. When a Yale student in 1890 found an interesting and somewhat fierce-looking bulldog in front of a blacksmith’s shop, he purchased the dog to become the Yale mascot. Dubbed Handsome Dan, ironically named because of his appearance, he was paraded across the field and sat on the sidelines of all football and baseball games. The dog would bark at the opposing team and would only respond to Yale students.

Handsome Dan became the symbol of the school. His image became a marketing tool, and his face would appear on all manner of merchandise sold by Yale. When he died, his remains were stuffed, and Handsome Dan was put on display. Today, his remains are sealed in a glass case where he is surrounded by all of Yale’s sports trophies. Handsome Dan is the standard by which all other sports mascots should be judged, since he succeeded in becoming not just a symbol for a team, but a powerful marketing commodity.

Using Handsome Dan as an example, colleges, universities, high schools, and professional teams all formed mascots to serve as team symbols and as a means to sell merchandise to their fans and alumni. In addition to real animals, schools took to Native American tribes to find what they considered to be fierce and powerful mascots. Often, schools used local Native American tribes to symbolize their teams and would dress someone up to play the role. They might beat on a drum, perform a “war dance”, or run along the sidelines with a tomahawk. It didn’t matter that the tribe was extinct, or that they were perpetuating stereotypes. It was a show. Sadly, this practice, though offensive to many, continues in many communities.

In the 1960s, when the Muppets were created by Jim Henson, teams found that they could attract kids by having mascots dress in puppet-like costumes. They could continue to be animals, but now cuddly and silly, rather than ferocious. They could even be hilarious clowns, such as the San Diego Chicken, the mascot of baseball’s San Diego Padres.  And, in many cases, they could be some creature of indeterminate origin. Baseball’s Boston Red Sox have Wally the Monster, a green beer-bellied loveable creature who supposedly lives behind the scoreboard wall in left-field.

Of course, some are more successful than others. The Philadelphia Phillies baseball team employs The Philly Phanatic, a wingless, flightless bird with an extendible tongue. He was created for the Phillies by Jim Henson’s Muppet crew. The team failed to pay the initial costs to own the rights of the character, which turned out to be a costly error. He became so popular that, when they finally managed to negotiate the Phanatic’s ownership away from Henson, they had to pay 1100 times the original fee!

Now comes Gritty, the mascot of another Philadelphia team, the Fliers of the National Hockey League. Gritty’s recent inauspicious debut practically broke the Internet with derisive laughter and cries of disbelief. Described as “A fuzzy terror” and “An acid-trip of a mascot”, this creature is everything Handsome Dan was not. It remains to be seen if Gritty will have the lasting power, to say nothing of the marketability, of Handsome Dan. But, if the initial response is any indication, Gritty may have to crawl back from whatever hole he came from.

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